Red Dog (Australia, 2011)
Directed by: Kriv Stenders
Written by: Louis de Bernières, Daniel Taplitz
Starring: Koko, Josh Lucas, Rachael Taylor, Luke Ford, Noah Taylor
The story on which Red Dog is based – the true account of a canine who rambled through the north-west of Australia in the 1970s – is curious, possibly even interesting. The film, however, is formulaic, laboured, generally unrealistic (which is amazing considering this is a true story) and features some awfully one-dimensional characterisation.
The tale begins with a truckie (Luke Ford, scripted to speak like a Neighbours character) who pulls into the pub at Dampier to find a group of locals holding a gun to a dog’s head. And, as any reasonable person would do, he asks what the hell is going on.
The dog is Red Dog (Koko), the so-called “most famous dog in Australia”, and he’s been poisoned by parties unknown. While the group wait for the vet to arrive, the publican (Noah Taylor, whose facial hair is surely deserving of a Lifetime Achievement AFI award by now) begins to tell Red Dog’s story to the truckie and anyone else within earshot.
The film is told in a sort of cyclical fashion, alternating between the scene in the pub and extended flashbacks of Red Dog’s life, as narrated by various locals. The narration is fluffed with the kind of faux-grandeur of the interminable narration in The Nugget, as if this dog cured cancer and went back in time to stop World War II in between taking dumps on cranky old Mrs. Cribbage’s vegetable garden.
That’s really one of the characters, by the way, and she is as nuanced as she sounds.
Red Dog’s critical problem is the screenplay and its rigid adherence to an ultimately clichéd plot structure, with moments of comedy and tragedy so predictably alternated that you can feel them coming from miles away. Haven’t had a poignant moment for 25 minutes? Here it comes!
I know it’s supposed to be just a feel-good family flick not to be taken too seriously, but when human beings are talking to a dog in English and he not only understands them but reacts in a cute doggy sort of way, I have real trouble not wanting to throw things at the screen. And the ending feels like director Kriv Stenders made a concerted effort to make it as obvious and sickeningly heart-warming as he possibly could, which he certainly achieved.
On the positive side the film is visually stunning, with shot after delicious shot of the Australian outback town and the major mining operation found there, and Josh Lucas and Rachael Taylor are genuinely warm and attractive in the two main human roles.
But nearly every other character is a stereotype: ocker Aussie blokes, a thickly-accented Italian, the aforementioned evil caravan park Nazis Mr. and Mrs. Cribbage… they even manged to squeeze the late Bill Hunter in for a cameo, as all Australian films are required to do.
Maybe I’m just a heartless hater, but I found Red Dog to be far too self-consciously silly to be enjoyable. But every Aussie and his dog will probably love it, and it’ll be one of the highest-grossing local films of the year.